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Learn How, Less Than a Year After Her Diagnosis, She’s ‘Dancing With the Stars’

Less Than a Year After Her Diagnosis, She’s ‘Dancing With the Stars’

Actress Valerie Harper, diagnosed with terminal cancer less than a year ago, is still alive – and about to compete on “Dancing With the Stars.” Find out how the “Rhoda” star survived, and how she’s preparing for the tough physical challenges ahead.

In January, a doctor told Valerie Harper she might have no more than three months to live. Nine months later, the Emmy-winning actress is not only alive, but about to kick up her heels on the new season of “Dancing With the Stars.”

After enduring 4-hour rehearsals, she’ll make her first appearance on the show’s season premiere Monday, Sept. 16.

Best known for the 1970s sitcoms, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff “Rhoda,” Harper, 74, has been battling cancer for years. (See Lifescript’s interview with Valerie Harper .)

In 2009, she was treated for lung cancer, even though she – like about 12% of patients – never smoked.

Then, in January 2013, she was hospitalized for symptoms that included numbness in her jaw. Doctors diagnosed her with leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare and often terminal cancer of the membranes surrounding the brain.

The condition, which can strike at any age, occurs in only 5% of cancer patients whose disease has spread, and often follows a lung tumor, says Albert Lai, M.D. Ph.D. associate professor in the Neuro-Oncology Program at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles.

It’s lethal because “there’s really no effective treatment for it,” he says.

So how did Harper gain those extra months?

She appears to be among the fortunate 30% who respond well to treatment, says Garni Barkhoudarian, M.D. a neurosurgeon at the Brain Tumor Center at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. He wasn’t involved in Harper’s care.

She was probably treated with intrathecal chemotherapy, which is delivered directly into the spinal fluid and drains into

the brain, Dr. Barkhoudarian explains. It sometimes gives patients a year or more to live after the diagnosis.

Now, after beating considerable odds, she’s “pretty close to a remission,” Harper’s doctor, neuro-oncologist Jeremy Rudnick, M.D. told People magazine on Aug. 29.

But that doesn’t mean she’s in the clear.

“It’s not a case of if [the cancer worsens], but when,” Harper told the magazine.

A Tough Physical Challenge

Harper was skeptical about her ability to handle “Dancing With the Stars,” despite having been a professional Broadway dancer in her youth, the actress told People. Still, Dr. Rudnick and Harper’s husband, Tony Cacciotti, encouraged her to take on the challenge.

The show puts contestants through grueling workouts – something that sounds improbable for a late-stage cancer patient.

But it’s not impossible, Dr. Barkhoudarian says. In fact, undergoing multiple rounds of chemotherapy and conquering its accompanying fatigue “probably was a steeper challenge than the dance rehearsals,” he says.

To protect her health, she’ll need to stay hydrated, watch her energy level and make sure she doesn’t overexert herself during rehearsals and the show.

“She needs to know when to stop and rest,” Dr. Barkhoudarian says.

In fact, the competition might also boost Harper’s mental outlook.

“You can stare at a piece of paper that has your diagnosis and sink into a depression – or be active outdoors or dance on a show,” Dr. Barkhoudarian says. “Cancer patients with depression don’t do as well as those with a better outlook on life.”

Patients who do fun activities and socialize, however, enjoy a better quality of life, he adds. Even though her long-term prognosis is dim, Harper is “focused on living,” the actress told Lifescript.

“When life asks you to dance, you just have to dance,” she said in People.

Check out Lifescript’s Cancer Health Center to learn more about the disease.

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